The Year in Mahler 2016

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What a year. There are more concerts to come, but my experience hearing Simon Rattle lead the Philadelphia Orchestra in Mahler 6 Monday night at Carnegie put a cap on a run of unforgettable performances. Read my review of last night at the New York Classical Review here, and catch up on these reviews from earlier in the year of New York Philharmonic performances: Mahler 6 with Semyon Bychkov, Mahler 9 with Bernard Haitink, Das Lied von der Erde (and Sibelius 7) with Alan Gilbert.

Sharing reviews is always tinged with the frustration of not being able to share the experience, nor of recalling anything but the memory of an overall impact. But there’s a welcome exception: the Philharmonic has released a digital recording from the Bychkov/Mahler 6 run, and it is as great as my memories, one of the finest performances of the symphony you’ll hear. You can stream it/buy it from iTunes, or do the same at Amazon, where the audio is better. Note that the cover image has Gilbert’s name, but it’s Bychkov conducting.

 

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Go See: New York Philharmonic 2010-11

(First in a series of highly subjective and selective recommendations).

In this burgeoning new era at the New York Philharmonic, it’s no longer a surprise to see a contemporary work like Kraft, the piece that pretty much put composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg on the international map, on a concert program. What is a bit of a surprise, though, and an extraordinarily happy one, is the simple sense of fun involved in the project:

Kraft is a raucous, banging, bright and dirty work, and it’s going to be a thrill to see the junk arrayed in Avery Fisher Hall, hear the piano played like Mr. Hyde’s version of Gershwin. It’s going to be a lot of fun, and that’s some serious good news. Last season’s triumphant production of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre succeeded in many important ways – artistically, culturally and financially (that may be the most important) – but the part of it that truly amazed, that went beyond any possible expectations, was how tremendously fun it all was.

There has perhaps never been as much exuberant good humor in Avery Fisher as there was last May. The opera is gleefully mocking of the conventions of operatic music – it opens with a car horn fanfare – and story – audiences may expect The Crazy in opera characters, but not the fornication and defecation. The staging by Doug Fitch and Giants Are Small was imaginative and smart, with the characters in full costume and the scenery created by live projection of animation on a decorative screen hanging above the stage. And by animation I mean hand-made and hand-held, actual miniature models manually manipulated with a deliberate transparency, like an elementary school production but done with sublime craft and a but of gentle mockery at the expense of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It was a marvelous combination of Edward Gorey, Ernie Kovacs, Mel Brooks and “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

Most fun of all was the performance. Gilbert and the orchestra were superb accompanists to a fabulous cast. Opera orchestras, except for the Met, are usually a cut below the level of the best ensembles, and so it’s a revelation to hear opera music played with such musicality and technical assurance, and the performance exceeded both the fully staged version I saw at the San Francisco Opera and any currently on CD. The musicians didn’t just play, either, they participated gleefully, including pelting the character of the Black Minister with paper at one point in the second act. That singer was Joshua Bloom, and he and the rest of the vocal performers had the most fun of all. See for yourself:

That was Barbara Hannigan almost stealing the show as Gepopo. Almost, because not only was the singing at the highest level, but the cast, which included budding star Eric Owens as Nekrotzar, Anthony Roth Costanzo (who had just recently appeared in City Opera’s fine production of Handel’s Parthenope), Melissa Parks as Mescalina and the great Wilbur Pauley (who has performed everything from Mozart to Harry Partch) as Astradamors, all excelled as performers, clearly relishing their ridiculous characters and the opportunity to embody what was fundamentally a very, very good time. The subscribers who declined to buy tickets to the production were replaced by an eager, excited new audience (the run was sold-out) and many will surely be back. The Philharmonic once again proved their commitment to their new direction, offering the sizzle and serving up the steak, and it is that commitment to explore new ideas at the same high level that they have historically cultivated which makes Avery Fisher an exciting, fun place to be.

With Alan Gilbert, one gets plenty of meat as well. At the end of the season he led concerts in music of Lindberg, HK Gruber, Sibelius, Mozart, Brahms and Wagner. Taken together with previous performances during the season, what it means in musical terms to have Gilbert on the podium is becoming clearer. He is an excellent accompanist, providing alert, clear and sympathetic support to each soloist, even in music that is not so successful, like Gruber’s colorful but unfocussed Aerial for trumpet soloist. Hakan Hardenberger proved that he may be the finest trumpet player in the world, but the concerto doesn’t ultimately say much. The Sibelius Violin Concerto is one of the great ones (Joshua Bell will be playing it in the same concerts with Kraft) and Lisa Batiashvili was impressive in it. She built the swell from emotional desolation to vibrancy with an effective rectitude and thoughtful, deliberate phrasing. Her playing has an intensity that comes across as a sense of masterful control, she’s an intelligent and musical player. Gilbert’s hushed pianissimo at the opening was spine-tingling.

He’s also superb in modern and contemporary music, emphasizing clarity of sound and structure and trusting the musicians implicitly. All the contemporary pieces I heard, including Lindberg’s Arena, were convincingly played. In the older, more familiar repertoire, he clearly favors the Romantic era. His precision of sound and phrasing and his exact rhythmic articulation were a strength in a performance of the Brahms Symphony No. 2, which had a lean quality, perhaps a little too understated in the composer’s most emotionally voluptuous moments, but with real fire in the finale. Principal horn Philip Myers’ solo was some of the finest horn playing I have ever heard, if not the finest. Gilbert’s Mozart is polished, less weighty than his Haydn. He seems to still be figuring out what he thinks of some of the music, and a performance of the Symphony No. 25 alternated a modern weight and strength with a sharp dance movement and a dark and intense finale. HIs shaping of symphonic works follows a consistent path, with Gilbert consistently building towards greater energy, although at times with the sacrifice of too much of the same quality in previous movements.

Along with the new pieces and ideas on the schedule, the greatest moments of the season were in performances of Schumann, Beethoven and Wagner. GIlbert’s Schumann is excellent, singing, flowing, controlled, with wonderful transitions. His Beethoven is superlative, with great weight, power, the right kind of humor and a sense of dignity that is so important in the music. His performance of the Prelude und Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde was ravishing, with marvelous pianissimo playing and an emphasis on color and instability in the great “Tristan chord,” and the Siegfried Idyll he led was the best I’ve heard. It was fast, gently flowing, with a throbbing, underpinning pulse. Gilbert said so much with each modulation of tempo, he made the music sound spontaneous, as if being played for the first time. The gorgeous closing chord was marred only by the sound of someone strangling herself in the balcony.

The conductor has also shaped the New York Philharmonic’s sound. The orchestra is playing at an extremely high level, and the diet of contemporary music is just going to raise that. Their strength and polish fit the ubiquitous international style of orchestral playing that we now have, but Gilbert’s emphasis on woodwind color has added an Old World warmth and timbre, which is lovely. That sound coupled with Varèse’s orchestral works in the Lincoln Center Festival was a revelation. Not only did the group play this intensely modern music with the highest skill and commitment, they also gave it a sound that fit it back into the history to which the music, and the composer, belongs. Interpretation of the highest order.

So, go see the New York Philharmonic this year. They make gorgeous, exciting music, and they’re a lot of fun.

Hotter Than July

Forgive the clever title, but after the ridiculous, oppressive heat of May and June, every cell in my body is telling me that it’s now October. Of course, it’s July, and that will be more than obvious next week when the predicted temperatures in New York City will be in the mid-90s. But it snowed last winter, so nothing to worry about…

So what’s good to do in July? Plenty, and plenty of it free:

July 1 (That’s tonight!) – “I Do Not Doubt I Am Limitless: Walt Whitman’s Brooklyn,” Brooklyn Bridge Park, 5PM – Midnight (Free). This is an evening of music and readings celebrating this great American and great Brooklynite, put together by the Brooklyn Heights Association and ISSUE Project Room. Ignore the description of the poet’s “psychedelic spirit” and go for the great variety of music, the beautiful outdoor setting and the words of the man himself.

July 1 – September 26Christian Marclay: Festival, Whitney Museum. You won’t have to rush off to this, but it does open today and is one of the highlights of the summer and a major event. It is more of a musical performance than anything else. There are physical exhibits of Marclay’s artifacts, both found and self-produced, and continuous screenings of video work, but what makes this different is that each day there will be performances as part of the exhibition featuring such artists as Elliot Sharp, Lee Ranaldo, Nicholas Collins, Ikue Mori and Sylvie Courvoisier. The structure of Marclay’s work means that if you go see this more than once, it will be different each time, and that’s a rare experience in a museum.

MonthlongSummerstage, Citywide. The schedule for music in the parks is dense this month, and if you have to suffer the heat, why not group together in a sweaty throng for a good time? The most exciting shows look to be: (in Manhattan) July 7, Central Park – Nortec Collective; July 12, Central Park – The Metropolitan Opera Summer Recital; July 17, Central Park – Celebration of the 20th Anniversary of Giant Steps; July 31, Central Park – Jovanotti, Los Amigos Invisibles and Natalia Lafourcade.

MonthlongCelebrate Brooklyn!, Prospect Park. The season continues with these highlights: July 8 – Armitage Gone! Dance; July 11 – OkayAfrica with The Roots and Talib Kweli; July 22 – Charlie Chaplin movies with live accompaniment of score by Carl Davis; July 31 – Sonic Youth, Grass Widow and Talk Normal.

July 8 – 17 The Little Death, Vol. 1 , St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. Matt Marks new recording, The Little Death Vol. 1, is excellent, and since it’s essentially a musical, the staged performances will be even better. I strongly recommend this, even though it’s not free.

July 13 – 19New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Parks (and indoors), various locations. Check their schedule for the different locations, but go out and hear the hometown orchestra, which is becoming much more a part of New York again under Alan Gilbert. The programs include appearances by Lang Lang and works of Ravel, Lyadov, Prokofiev and Bernstein. That’s good summer music.

July 11 (weekly thereafter) – Summergarden: New Music for New York. This is the annual free concert series held outdoors at the Museum of Modern Art. I’m personally nostalgic for this, as I’ve heard a lot of great music when I’ve been down and out, including a memorable evening of a Feldman’s Why Patterns amidst conversation, insect and traffic sounds and the ringing cash register.

July 7 – 25Lincoln Center Festival. There are always things you can pay for as well, and the festival consistently presents involving programming of music, dance and theater. The real problem is choosing, and if it’s any help at all I would highlight Emir Kusturica, the Varèse festival and La porta della legge . And keep an eye out for Lincoln Center Out of Doors, starting July 28, for great free performances.

That’s a packed schedule, so the list should end here. But again, if you’re going to stay home and want to hear something new, William Britelle’s Television Landscape drops on July 27, and it is absolutely great. Hear me now, believe me later, or wait for my review.

It's Not The End Of The World

To answer Dan Wakin’s quasi-rhetorical question, I think Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic felt they had a pretty good idea when they decided to produce a semi-staged performance of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre this week.  There are two goals that the orchestra has in mind here, one is to present music and the other is to sell tickets.  For the latter, it’s not just getting people into seats, but getting people into seats they have never sat in before and get them coming back.

This is a gamble only in economic terms, and certainly not one that, if it does not return 100% on the investment, is going to do terrible damage the Phil.  From the perspective of what has only been done in the past, this is clearly upsetting expectations, with only 33% subscription sales for the run.  But the Phil hired Alan Gilbert because they wanted to do something different than they have done in the past, and the transformation, as I’ve stated before, of the whole organization has been remarkable.  Not only is Gilbert programming music that matters in the here and now, but the orchestra is making excellent use of digital media, both to distribute their evolving legacy as a living memory via their season pass but also in gathering a wide net for new audiences.  Le Grand Macabre is an ideal choice for that; there’s the cachet of the very first performance of a major work in New York City, there’s Ligeti himself, an excellent composer who has fans in the rock and experimental worlds who would never otherwise dream of attending a Philharmonic concert, and some fine promotional material as well, via digital videos.  Some are witty little ads:

Others are shown almost live and give you a specific look into the music and are ideal for the curious:

The event isn’t a gimmick, though, this long trailer shows that the Phil is investing serious thought, time and money into saying something and making this work.  Their commitment is exciting, they’ve made the calculation that it’s worth trading a sell-out for an audience that is going to be awake and engaged throughout, and I think for an arts organization that’s a smart trade, because that audience will go home, and then some will come back again, and they will bring their friends, and there will be a new, larger audience, and the Philharmonic’s path towards the future has earned them that audience.  I would encourage anyone sitting on the fence to go, because events like this are rare and the chance to see this great and wild work will probably not come again.  Saying you were there will be better than hip, it’ll be cool.  Bring your friends.

It’s Not The End Of The World

To answer Dan Wakin’s quasi-rhetorical question, I think Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic felt they had a pretty good idea when they decided to produce a semi-staged performance of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre this week.  There are two goals that the orchestra has in mind here, one is to present music and the other is to sell tickets.  For the latter, it’s not just getting people into seats, but getting people into seats they have never sat in before and get them coming back.

This is a gamble only in economic terms, and certainly not one that, if it does not return 100% on the investment, is going to do terrible damage the Phil.  From the perspective of what has only been done in the past, this is clearly upsetting expectations, with only 33% subscription sales for the run.  But the Phil hired Alan Gilbert because they wanted to do something different than they have done in the past, and the transformation, as I’ve stated before, of the whole organization has been remarkable.  Not only is Gilbert programming music that matters in the here and now, but the orchestra is making excellent use of digital media, both to distribute their evolving legacy as a living memory via their season pass but also in gathering a wide net for new audiences.  Le Grand Macabre is an ideal choice for that; there’s the cachet of the very first performance of a major work in New York City, there’s Ligeti himself, an excellent composer who has fans in the rock and experimental worlds who would never otherwise dream of attending a Philharmonic concert, and some fine promotional material as well, via digital videos.  Some are witty little ads:

Others are shown almost live and give you a specific look into the music and are ideal for the curious:

The event isn’t a gimmick, though, this long trailer shows that the Phil is investing serious thought, time and money into saying something and making this work.  Their commitment is exciting, they’ve made the calculation that it’s worth trading a sell-out for an audience that is going to be awake and engaged throughout, and I think for an arts organization that’s a smart trade, because that audience will go home, and then some will come back again, and they will bring their friends, and there will be a new, larger audience, and the Philharmonic’s path towards the future has earned them that audience.  I would encourage anyone sitting on the fence to go, because events like this are rare and the chance to see this great and wild work will probably not come again.  Saying you were there will be better than hip, it’ll be cool.  Bring your friends.

CONTACT! Live Blogging; “Songs From Solomon’s Garden”

9:27PM . . .  Schaefer and Gilbert are speaking prior to this last piece, with text in Hebrew from the Megillah . . . the great Thomas Hampson singing for the premier, Pintscher must be ecstatic . . . I would be; man-crush on Hampson is totally acceptable . . . Hampson even taller than Gilbert, okay no more gossip, time for music . . . opens a capella . . . the music is quiet, bracing, astringent, a bit spectral in it’s idiom . . . mysterious, evocative timbres, clouds of sound . . . apologies I can’t follow text and comment on what Pintscher says about the words with his music, too many things to do! . . . langorous feeling has now become agitated and intense as the text sings of the objects of desire; this desire is fervid, aggressive, even angry, perhaps self-consuming . . . chattering oboe brings us back to a point of exhalation, but not relaxation . . . Pintscher has established an underlying tension that is quite powerful, I am quite actively interested in hearing how he resolves it, or even if he bothers to . . . Hampson really committed to the music, it’s new so clearly cannot be totally incorporated, but his concentration on the part is balanced with real ideas about expression and interpretation, such an impressive musician . . . the instruments, especially woodwinds, are now commenting more actively on the singing, the idea seems to be taking place very much in an internal, mental space, this is very much like an extended operatic monologue, with the character searching himself, it’s dramatic and gradually becoming ever more gripping . . . a short, echt-Romantic string line there, and the uncanny sound of a wah-ing trumpet, I’m thinking of Berio now . . . this is music where the ear, and listening, must take some moments to adapt, but now it sounds natural, logical and is developing real power . . . quiet yet intense, Hampson in falsetto, string harmonics and a whispering growl from the contrabassoon, don’t want to breath and miss any moment . . . wow, this part is so good it could go on forever . . . and what a way to end!  An alluring, entrancing work, full of secrets, really needs to be heard again and again.

Quite a concert, different and as impressive as the first one in the series, probably tighter and freer playing with Gilbert conducting, a great range of music and determined focus. You can still hear these pieces in concert, Saturday night at the Metropolitan Museum, and you can tune in next week to Q2 for the rebroadcast.  Now, time for a beer . . .

CONTACT! Live Blogging; "Songs From Solomon's Garden"

9:27PM . . .  Schaefer and Gilbert are speaking prior to this last piece, with text in Hebrew from the Megillah . . . the great Thomas Hampson singing for the premier, Pintscher must be ecstatic . . . I would be; man-crush on Hampson is totally acceptable . . . Hampson even taller than Gilbert, okay no more gossip, time for music . . . opens a capella . . . the music is quiet, bracing, astringent, a bit spectral in it’s idiom . . . mysterious, evocative timbres, clouds of sound . . . apologies I can’t follow text and comment on what Pintscher says about the words with his music, too many things to do! . . . langorous feeling has now become agitated and intense as the text sings of the objects of desire; this desire is fervid, aggressive, even angry, perhaps self-consuming . . . chattering oboe brings us back to a point of exhalation, but not relaxation . . . Pintscher has established an underlying tension that is quite powerful, I am quite actively interested in hearing how he resolves it, or even if he bothers to . . . Hampson really committed to the music, it’s new so clearly cannot be totally incorporated, but his concentration on the part is balanced with real ideas about expression and interpretation, such an impressive musician . . . the instruments, especially woodwinds, are now commenting more actively on the singing, the idea seems to be taking place very much in an internal, mental space, this is very much like an extended operatic monologue, with the character searching himself, it’s dramatic and gradually becoming ever more gripping . . . a short, echt-Romantic string line there, and the uncanny sound of a wah-ing trumpet, I’m thinking of Berio now . . . this is music where the ear, and listening, must take some moments to adapt, but now it sounds natural, logical and is developing real power . . . quiet yet intense, Hampson in falsetto, string harmonics and a whispering growl from the contrabassoon, don’t want to breath and miss any moment . . . wow, this part is so good it could go on forever . . . and what a way to end!  An alluring, entrancing work, full of secrets, really needs to be heard again and again.

Quite a concert, different and as impressive as the first one in the series, probably tighter and freer playing with Gilbert conducting, a great range of music and determined focus. You can still hear these pieces in concert, Saturday night at the Metropolitan Museum, and you can tune in next week to Q2 for the rebroadcast.  Now, time for a beer . . .